Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) pre-empted official results by declaring itself the winner on Tuesday of the first presidential election since the military forced veteran leader Robert Mugabe to resign.
MDC’s declaration prompted a strong behind-the scenes rebuttal from the ruling Zanu-PF party, which said it was easily winning the race.
With both sides claiming victory in the hiatus between Monday’s historic vote and the announcement of an official result, which could take up to five days, the electoral commission warned that it was “unlawful” to declare results prematurely.
“The announcement of results by undesignated persons has the potential of misleading the public and raise unnecessary political emotions,” the commission said at a press conference at which it declared a handful of parliamentary results.
Earlier, Tendai Biti, a senior member of the MDC, said that a parallel tally by his party showed “beyond doubt” that Nelson Chamisa, the main opposition candidate, had won.
He said his party had evidence of a plot to assassinate Mr Chamisa and accused the election commission of a “deliberate delay” in announcing the result.
But people close to Zanu-PF said Emmerson Mnangagwa, the incumbent, was “winning by a mile” and dismissed what they said were irresponsible opposition tactics to confuse the public with fake results.
One said that the MDC was following the “Raila playbook”, a reference to Raila Odinga, the opposition candidate in last year’s disputed election in Kenya who refused to accept his defeat, leading to protests by his supporters.
Stakes are high in Zimbabwe’s first election since independence in 1980 without Mr Mugabe on the ballot paper. Mr Mugabe resigned in November after the military deployed on the streets and detained the president and his wife.
If Mr Mnangagwa can convince the international community that he has won a fair election that could lead to re-engagement with multilateral lenders and billions of dollars in investment. Johnnie Carson, a former US ambassador to Zimbabwe and a former US undersecretary of state for Africa, said Mr Mnangagwa — who was a loyal retainer of Mr Mugabe for four decades — wanted the election to improve his legitimacy and repair relations with the international community. Mr Mnangagwa is still on a US sanctions list, imposed after his Zanu-PF used violence to retain power after it lost elections in 2008.
As the prospect of a stand-off mounted, police trucks with water cannon were spotted on some of Harare’s main streets, not far from the MDC headquarters where crowds had gathered to celebrate a putative victory. Priscilla Chigumba, head of the election commission, said the presidential result might not be announced until Saturday. “We are nowhere near where we expected to be so I can see us going into the fifth day,” she told South African television.